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The painting's on the Wall for Thierry Noir

Twenty-six years after the Berlin Wall came down, Thierry Noir—the first artist to paint on it—talks about his life and times in a city divided

Published: Nov 21, 2015 06:23:16 AM IST
Updated: Nov 19, 2015 02:38:23 PM IST
The painting's on the Wall for Thierry Noir
Image: Bojan Brecelj / Corbis
Paintings, including Thierry Noir’s, on the Berlin Wall

It all begins with a thought. The building of an edifice of epic proportions and monumental importance, the waging of a great war with bloody and devastating consequences, or the painting of a work of art that will someday be known the world over for its impact and the chain of events it sets off.

Consequences? Well, those come later.

So it was when Velvet Underground front-man Lou Reed sang his ode to Berlin:  
In Berlin, by the Wall
You were five foot ten inches tall…
It was very nice
It was paradise.

Twelve hundred kilometres from Berlin, in Lyon (France), a young man listened earnestly to the crooning, unaware of the fact that Reed had written the song while in the USA, without having once visited Berlin. For the impressionable Thierry Noir, who’d already spent much time wondering why his idols—the likes of David Bowie and Nina Hagen—had drifted towards that very city, this was it. Deciding that if he really wanted to find out what it was about Berlin that drew creative minds to it in droves he’d have to go there, he packed two suitcases and got on a train, with a one-way ticket stuffed in his pocket.

“If I had a return ticket, I’d have left immediately because I was so afraid,” says the 57-year-old, sitting in his atelier in Schoneberg. Thirty-three years have gone by, but it is evident as he groans and buries his face in his hands that the memories of that first impression of West Berlin in 1982—the strange light and yellow tiles of Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten, the sight and smell of drunken people, some of whom rather unpleasantly seemed to have relieved themselves in the station, and the incomprehensible chatter of a foreign language—still bring back feelings of dread and uncertainty. But he didn’t have that return ticket that he longed for, and so he stayed.

West Berlin, back then, was a world where the latest cars carried the most glamorous movie stars and musicians to the most decadent parties, where clubs raged all night long and life seemed so wild, so good, so free. But lurking in the shadows of the glitz, Noir says, was the reality of the Iron Curtain. This, melded together with the dissatisfaction of the Baby Boomers (who had grown up to find that space was scarce and squats all over the city were being closed down by the then mayor Richard von Weizsäcker, leaving thousands homeless) meant there was another side to the city—a dirty, sooty side often swept under the rug.

“It was a bizarre time,” Noir says, his brow furrowed and a faraway look appearing in his grey-blue eyes as he describes the city’s murky underbelly. It was a time when der Schwarze Block, or Black Bloc, protesters would march silently through the streets, only their footfall disturbing the night, before they’d break off and destroy entire neighbourhoods, and then go back to the silent marching.

The painting's on the Wall for Thierry Noir
Image: Vaishali Dinakaran
Noir in his Berlin studio, with two of his recently completed works behind him

It was the reality of this time that Noir, as a young tourist kicked out of his digs after just two days in West Berlin, was acutely aware of. Reed’s lyrics, ironically enough, helped him through these tough times. He decided to walk along the Wall in search of the life that Reed had called paradise in his song. And he found a room for himself in a youth hostel, the Georg von Rauch-Haus.

“Not to get crazy in the artificial life of West Berlin, it was important to fill yourself as a human being and to create something of your own,” he says. He had begun telling people that he was multi-talented, that he could sing, dance and paint, of which only the first two were true and tested, for he didn’t want to come off as “the village idiot” in the sea of creative people he encountered. He did, however, hope to find a way of life that suited him. “I was fired from every job I did in Lyon,” he says matter-of-factly.

The painting's on the Wall for Thierry Noir
Image: Vaishali Dinakaran
T-shirts at Galerie Noir, one of Noir’s three exclusive showrooms in Berlin, which stock every possible kind of Big Head memorablia

But when Noir first moved into the Rauch-Haus, from whose windows he could see the Berlin Wall, he wasn’t aware of the fact that it was this very Wall that would really help him create something of his own. For young Noir, the Wall was almost a living, breathing monster. A monster that looked placid on the surface, but, given the number of lives it had claimed, was anything but. He began journeying to the end of train lines, and then to the end of bus routes, visiting far-flung places in West Germany and only stopping when he was faced with the dreaded Wall. And he felt, growing within him, a deep discontent and a desire to do something about it. In the black of night on April 16, 1984, armed with a brush and some paint, do something he did. The monster was his canvas and freedom was his muse.

“It was revenge,” Noir says to me of his first painting on the Berlin Wall, a dog with a heart on its chest. While in Lyon, he had drawn this very sketch with a pen on a board in the office he worked in. It got him fired because his boss, who had just been awarded the Legion d’Honneur, assumed that the cheeky young man had drawn a caricature of him. With this memory in mind, Noir began to paint on the Wall. It was the first time he had used a brush and paint as an adult. He was never to put it down again.  

“I had no influences, I painted whatever I wanted to,” Noir says. And the more he painted in the dead of night, the more his style grew. The thoughts would come to him, he says, when he was at the Wall. But so often was he interrupted by passers-by who would ask, “Who pays you to paint the Wall?” and “Why are you trying to make the Wall beautiful?” that he realised he needed a simple style that would allow him to talk while he painted. That the five-metre width of land that ran along the Wall in West Berlin was in reality regarded as East Berlin soil, and was hence governed by laws of the German Democratic Republic, was also something he needed to keep in mind. The GDR did not allow paintings on the Wall and every single time Noir painted, he risked arrest.

“I had to paint fast,” he remembers, speaking of how the stakes were high. “Because once you were in jail in East Berlin, you were in jail in East Berlin,” he says rather wryly.

The speed at which he needed to paint caused him to develop ‘The Fast Form Manifest’—the use of just two ideas and only three colours—which resulted in the ‘Big Heads’ that gained fame on the Wall itself, eventually coming to be associated with Berlin in the same way that the Fernsehturm, the famed TV tower, did.

Sitting in Noir’s studio, I’m surrounded by these Big Heads. They’re everywhere. Some are still on the easel, waiting for a touch of paint here and a dab there. Some are completed and drying on counter-tops. And several more are packed neatly in bubble wrap, waiting to be sent to his stores, or to art galleries around the world, or even to the homes of private collectors. Looking at the brightly coloured cartoon-like heads, some of which are downright cute, it’s easy to forget that their origin lies in something so dark and bleak. You need to remind yourself repeatedly that Noir’s paintings were an attempt to ‘demystify’ the Wall. Just like strapping a pair of reindeer antlers and a Rudolph-esque red nose onto a crocodile. It doesn’t make the creature any less dangerous, but it helps morph it into something ridiculous. And this transformation makes the ‘evil’ a little bit easier to comprehend.

Beyond the activism born from angst, Noir painted because he realised it could earn him a living. Even though, like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, his art was a result of the frustration he felt for the society he lived in, it also earned him his daily three-squares. Art had helped him survive, intellectually and financially. He sold canvas reproductions of his paintings, already made famous by the Wall, at restaurants in Charlottenburg and Savignyplatz. And he consorted with other artists, dabbling in various mediums. By the time the GDR looked set to crumble, Noir was on the brink of global fame. And once the Wall came down on November 9, 1989, Thierry Noir had arrived.

The painting's on the Wall for Thierry Noir
Image: Vaishali Dinakaran
Four panels of the Berlin Wall with Noir’s Big Heads at Leipziger Strasse, Potsdamer Platz

“I was at Checkpoint Charlie, on my way home in my car, when I saw hundreds of people gathered there. People were trying to come in from the Eastern side, and the guards were telling them to back away because only then could they open up the doors without injuring anyone.” People thought it was a trick, Noir explains, but eventually the gates opened and a flood of people came into the West. In a trice everything changed.

“A new town happened… it was no longer just West Berlin,” he says. The newfound freedom of movement meant that several people from Kreuzberg, which had been the creative hub of the West, migrated to Prenzlauerberg, the creative hub of the East, leaving several shops and buildings abandoned and empty. And these buildings could be converted into illegal nightclubs that had parties that raged on into the wee hours. “It was a time when anything was possible,” Noir says, his eyes lighting up and his face breaking into a rare smile.

But long before this time, in the early 1980s, Noir had painted what he called ‘Red Dope on Rabbit’ on the Wall. It was for the rabbits that lived in the no-man’s-land between East and West Berlin. To him they were a mutation of nature, existing in limbo, scavenging the leftover food tossed aside by tourists in the West. He painted for them because he felt they had no other voice. He painted for freedom, of animal and man alike. Today, 26 years after the fall of the Wall, Noir still paints for freedom. And he still paints for those who can’t. Like he says, “Freedom is everything. If you are not free, you’re not existing.”

These many years later, he is as troubled by walls as he was back then. “People say our wall is not like the Berlin Wall. Our wall is a good wall. They give it names like The Peace Border and The Green Line. But as an artist I always say ‘a wall is a wall’,” he declares, squinting at me, as if daring me to disagree. I don’t.

Thierry Noir has come so very far. Of course, there were others like his friend Christophe-Emmanuel Bouchet (with whom he nailed a cellar door, a pair of shoes and a urinal onto the Wall, resulting in some unwanted attention from machine-gun wielding GDR soldiers), Kiddy Citny and even the legendary American artist Keith Haring who painted the Wall. But no one painted as extensively and for as long as Noir did—nearly every single night between 1984 and 1989. And no one formed a style quite as distinct as his. So distinct and iconic was his art that 33 concrete panels of the Berlin Wall with Noir’s paintings on one side (and Citny’s paintings on the other) were auctioned in Monaco in 1990 for approximately 30,000 Deutsche mark each. And once the Wall came down, Noir was invited to paint the unpainted panels of the Wall, and invited to countries far and wide to paint absolutely any surface they were able to offer. He even painted six Trabants for U2 and designed the vinyl art for their singles ‘The Fly’ and ‘Mysterious Ways’.

 It really has been a long journey for Noir—from scavenging paint from half empty cans he would find in recycle bins, to the cult following he’s gained today.

He has learned lessons along the way too. Perhaps the biggest of which “is that you can change the world with your art”. Which is why every single day, except on the very rare occasion when he has a migraine, Noir spends close to five hours painting in his studio. Inspiration? “Everything!” he says. “I’m not sure where it comes from,” he waves his hands around his head before pulling them down like he’s caught hold of an invisible idea, “but it comes from somewhere.”

It’s these invisible ideas and these strains of thought that keep alive and evolving the circle of art and culture. The way in which Noir was once inspired by his idols, young men and women today flock to Berlin hoping to catch a glimpse of Noir’s work at the Eastside Gallery. Others chance upon his work and find themselves inspired. You can see bits of this inspiration everywhere. In the way people linger and stare at the Big Heads all across the city. In the many meticulously composed photographs that are hash-tagged ‘NoirBerlin’ on Instagram. And, most of all, in the odd bits of amateur street-art, which, if you look closely enough, are scattered all through the city.

(This story appears in the 27 November, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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